Just Their Cup of Tea: British Cultivate Their Own

Jonathan Jones holds a picked leaf amid a handful of his English tea.
Jonathan Jones holds a picked leaf amid a handful of his English tea. (By Alastair Grant -- Associated Press)
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 23, 2005

TRURO, England -- Beyond the four-mile-long driveway, and the shaded path named "Lady's Walk" and the soft fields of purple rhododendron and grazing Holstein cows, Jonathan Jones walked among waist-high rows of rich green plants. With loving precision, he plucked off two perfect green leaves and a bud and held them proudly in his hand.

"English tea should be grown on English soil," he said, running his fingers over what he called a victory for horticulture and also for British culture: the first commercial crop of tea ever grown in this tea-mad nation.

Since the days of the British Empire, traders have been bringing tea home from India, China and other faraway lands where climate and labor costs allowed cultivation to thrive. The average person here still drinks at least two cups a day. But now, on a 670-year-old estate in southwest England, Jones and an aristocrat who counts Earl Grey as an ancestor are opening a new era in British tea production.

"It is rather nice to produce the very first locally grown cup of tea," said Evelyn Boscawen, a shy gardening enthusiast whose family has owned the vast Tregothnan estate for centuries. "It's fun, exciting, new."

Growing tea in Britain cuts against the grain in an era of globalized economics, when labor-intensive jobs flow to nations where the with the cheapest workforce. And it defies evolving sensibilities in this nation, where lemon-infused sparkling waters and frothy cafe lattes are making significant inroads on the iconic "cuppa."

This year, for the first time, Britain spent more on instant coffee than on tea, close to $800 million on each, according to beverage industry studies. But tea trade experts said British people are still drinking more tea -- 165 million cups a day -- than coffee.

While a relatively small crop of homegrown tea will hardly take over the huge market, "consumers will be intrigued," said William Gorman, executive director of the Tea Council, an independent group based in London dedicated to promoting tea. He noted that tea is serious business in Britain, where children grow up knowing the difference between a cream tea (a pot with a plate of scones, clotted cream and jam) and high tea (more of a meal).

But, Gorman said, one drawback to having "tea running in the blood" is that you take it for granted. So to remind people about the joy and value of tea, which is credited with helping fuel the British industrial revolution, the Tea Council launched an unusual publicity campaign this year to give the familiar old cup an image makeover.

Britons are used to "tea ladies" in aprons rolling tea trolleys around offices, so the council trained a squad of young men to make a perfect pot of tea and sent them out to factories, offices and beauty salons to offer tea to strangers. The message: Tea isn't just for Granny.

Globally, Gorman said, only water is consumed at higher rates than tea. Tea is a staple in the Middle East and Africa. China and India produce and nationally consume massive amounts of it. Japan is famous for its ubiquitous cups of green tea. And Ireland, just across the sea, tops the global list of per-capita consumption -- with every Irish man, woman and child drinking nearly three cups a day on average.

In the United States, tea consumption took a patriotic hit in the Boston Tea Party of 1773, when enraged colonists dumped British tea into the harbor to protest taxes. While coffee came to dominate, tea is gaining in popularity, said Alyssa Giannini of the Tea Association of the U.S.A., based in New York. "Tea houses are popping up all over the place in New York," she said.

But no matter what is going on elsewhere in the world, the British feel a deep cultural connection to tea. "It's a habitual comfort here," said Gorman, who calculates that Britain's 60 million people drink more tea than North America, Canada and continental Europe combined. "Drinking tea is like breathing."

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